Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Articles

Reason to Panic

Political fear cannot be alleviated by a mere addition of reason.

Corey Robin

Image of Wim van den Heuvel and Yoka Berretty, from Dutch television show Literature (1961). Via Wikimedia Commons.

“We reason deeply when we forcibly feel,” wrote Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796.1A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, ed. Richard Holmes (New York: Penguin, 1987) 171. After centuries of separating reason from emotion, philosophers have recently come around to Wollstonecraft’s way of thinking. Reflecting an emerging consensus, Martha Nussbaum writes, “All emotions are to some degree ‘rational’ in a descriptive sense—all are to some degree cognitive and based upon belief—and they may then be assessed, as beliefs are assessed, for their normative status.”22xNussbaum is here describing Aristotle’s position, for which she has considerable sympathy. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) 81. Also see Ronald de Sousa, The Rationality of Emotion (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987). But do we reason deeply when we feel fear? This question inspires greater pause. Ever since the Enlightenment, most philosophers have treated reason as the sibling of freedom, and fear as their evil stepmother. “The motto of enlightenment,” Kant wrote, is “Sapereaude! Have courage to use your own understanding.” But courage, Kant added, is often undermined by self-appointed “guardians,” who use fear to amplify “the danger which threatens” men and women as they try to think for themselves.33xImmanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?,” Kant’s Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H.B. Nisbet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 54.  Because fear prevents adults from exercising their reason and enjoying their freedom, reason and freedom are not to found among the fearful. From Henry Sidgwick to the Frankfurt School, from Franklin Roosevelt to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, philosophers and politicians over the last two centuries have affirmed this position.44xHenry Sidgwick, The Elements of Politics (London: Macmillan, 1891) 41; Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1986) 3; Franz Neumann, “Anxiety and Politics,” The Democratic and Authoritarian State: Essays in Political and Legal Theory, ed. Herbert Marcuse (New York: Free Press, 1957) 270; Judith N. Shklar, “The Liberalism of Fear,” Liberalism and the Moral Life, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989) 29; Franklin Roosevelt, “First Inaugural Address,” Inaugural Address of the Presidents of the United States (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1961) 235; Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom From Fear (New York: Penguin, 1991) 180–5.

When it comes to political fear, theorists are even more squeamish. By political fear, I mean either the shared apprehension of a people about threats to its safety or well being—the fear of crime, for example, or of communism or terrorism—or the intimidation by governments of citizens and subjects. What role does reason play in generating or sustaining these political fears? According to many writers, very little. Raymond Aron deemed political fear a “primal, and to speak, subpolitical emotion,” precluding the presence of mind reason requires. Judith Shklar described political fear as a “physiological reaction”—“involuntary and far too imperious to be controlled”—to brute force. As a response to weapons of violence, political fear reduces persons to physical objects, preventing them from reflecting upon their choices and ends. “This is where our physical and moral impulses meet and struggle, and where the former triumph.”55xRaymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought I: Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, the Sociologists of the Revolution of 1848, trans. Richard Howard and Helen Weaver (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968) 20–1; Judith N. Shklar, Montesquieu (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) 84.  That, the argument goes, is what makes political fear so objectionable: It threatens a subtraction of self, depriving the individual of her capacity to be a rational and autonomous agent. Though most writers would acknowledge that all politics requires some fear—if for no other reason than to deter those individuals who would subject men and women to their fearsome power—they insist that political fear must be minimized in order “to foster well-informed and self-directed adults.”66xShklar, “Liberalism of Fear,” 33. Political fear, in this view, has little to do with reason or with those instruments—like the rule of law or moral education—that traffic in reason. It is a primitive passion, roused by primitive implements, in the service of primitive ends: the brute power of brutish rulers or brutish insurgents and criminals.

In this essay, I would like to challenge this way of thinking about political fear. Drawing upon a tradition extending from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine and Hobbes, and from examples from the Cold War and the war on terrorism, I argue that while political fear is aroused in part by coercion and violence, it cannot seize a people without the help of reason and reason’s instruments. Unless political leaders buttress coercion with argument, unless they supplement violence with laws and moral education, the fear that coercion or violence are meant to arouse will be limited in its effects. This is true whether we are talking about the shared apprehension of a people in the face of a common threat, or a government’s intimidation of its citizenry and subjects, even if that intimidation is on the order of Nazism or Stalinism. (For reasons of space, though, I only discuss the first kind of fear here.) To say that political fear requires the aid of reason is not to say that political fear always renders truthfully, or reflects accurately, the dangers confronting a group or society. Political and cultural leaders can and do manipulate the fears of the public, exaggerating or distorting the dangers it faces. They do so, however, not by preying upon fear’s affective dimensions, but by capitalizing on its cognitive dimensions. Working through people’s judgments about the world, leaders encourage men and women to focus on certain dangers over others, and to construe—or misconstrue—the nature of those dangers. Throughout the Cold War and in the recently declared war on terrorism, we find particularly vivid examples of this process at play, suggesting that if we are to understand our contemporary moment, we must abandon our habitual separation of fear from reason and its political instruments. If we are to confront today fear and its baleful effects, we cannot simply oppose it as a thoughtless or wholly affective passion. We must confront its ideological underpinnings—the ideas and principles that underlie and give rise to the passion—which are propagated and reinforced by influential cultural and political elites.

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